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Herbalists, growers, community organizations and plant-loving people of all kinds are increasingly joining together to develop mobile apothecary projects to bring free herbal medicine — a holistic approach which has been a part of every culture in the world for as long as humans have been around — to people for whom this type of healthcare (or any healthcare) remains inaccessible.
In the US, herbal clinics and self-care stations may be the only form of healthcare some people can access; in the UK and Ireland, conventional healthcare is free at the point of contact, but generally does not include herbal medicine. In all of these countries, the most vulnerable people face barriers in accessing any healthcare.
Although free herbal medicine clinics exist — often associated with herbal medicine schools — the advantage of mobile apothecary is in reaching vulnerable populations where they are. In addition to providing care, these projects also provide education about herbal medicine, increasing people’s capacity to care for themselves, their families and their communities.
Beyond herbal medicine
The impetus for community herbal projects is the provision for some form of healthcare for those less able to access it, but there is much more to these projects than herbal remedies. Greater valuing of local plants — many of which are often considered weeds or invasive plants — raises awareness about more regenerative land practices. It also strengthens people’s relationships with the plants, soil and nature that they are a part of, improving mental and physical health.
This is also crucial because as interest in herbal medicine has exploded, unsustainable harvesting of medicinal plants has also increased, causing exploitation of people and land globally and locally. When people learn about local, abundant, nutrient-rich plants, they can mindfully harvest and use these vitamin- and mineral-rich plants as supplements, reducing the amount of packaging and energy-intensive recycling or waste associated with supplements purchased off the shelf, which are often less potent and less bio-available.
In Washington state, Canoe Journey Herbalists (CJH) — a project which grew after its inception as a medic bus which provided care for Water Protectors at Standing Rock Reservation — is also looking to decolonize herbalism and cultivate indigenous-led herbal care (and wider care) for intertribal people on their lands and waterways, according to founder, Rhonda Lee Grantham.
For two weeks in July, the Intertribal Canoe Journey, the largest intertribal gathering of indigenous people in the US, paddle cedar canoes down the ocean together, stopping along the way to be hosted by each tribe for an evening.
Although the bus itself serves as the clinic where more in-depth assessments take place, provision of other types of care enables CJH to serve the approximately 15,000 paddlers, as well as allowing for intergenerational connection. Indigenous healing circles and ceremonies, herbal foot baths that younger generations give to elders, and provision of tea, salves and sunburn sprays, are some of the different ways that non-clinician indigenous people participate in care-giving.
While non-indigenous people may now be far removed from their ancestors’ harmonious relations with plants and the natural world, community herbal projects serve as an anodyne for this disconnection, helping heal the isolation associated with atomized living prevalent in western societies.
Setting up a mobile apothecary
Atlanta-based herbalist Lorna Mauney-Brodek pioneered several mobile apothecary projects in the US, then took the tried-and-tested models to Ireland, inspiring projects in the UK as well. Her website, herbalista.org, provides a wealth of resources about a variety of community herbal projects, complete with set-up guides, recipes and widely used and accessible herbs.
Below is an outline of general guidance for setting up a mobile apothecary project in your community. Please note: The sequence is not fixed — there is some overlap between the steps below, and each project is unique. For example, the mobile apothecary project in London organically arose from an ad-hoc community medicinal root-harvest event organized to transform overabundant plants into cough medicine. That event was centered on supporting refugees living without shelter in France. The partnership which drove it — Phytology, Herbalists Without Borders London, and St. Margaret’s House — then resolved to set up a longer-term project to support local street homeless and other vulnerable people.
1. Clarify your objective:
Who are you trying to serve? Where do they hang out? What kinds of issues do they face that simple herbal remedies can help? Answers will undoubtedly evolve over time, but it’s useful to have a focus.
2. Find a few partners for your mobile apothecary:
It’s easier to go down this path with one or more people committed to actualizing a community herbal project. If you don’t already have a few potential people, reach out once you are fairly clear about your objective.
3. Do a resource audit and reach out:
Think about assets that already exist in your community. Some community assets to consider are:
Community gardens, private gardens and local farms:
Those who can supply herbs and medicinal foods. Make sure to source sustainably grown herbs or wild herbs growing in clean, pollution-free areas that are harvested responsibly. Herbalista has established a Grow a Row scheme where local growers can set aside some land to grow specific herbs for the community herb projects.
Venues that can offer free space:
For medicine-making sessions (if you plan to hold them to make remedies for your stock).
Venues that can store preparations:
This may be in someone’s home, the mobile unit (bus, cargo bike, etc.), or in a locked drawer in a collaborating organization. Security, access, and convenience in terms of loading up and transporting around are important considerations.
4. Form strategic community collaborations:
Collaboration can help with the financial side of receiving donations, as well as for hosting the herb station, harvesting or medicine-making sessions, or for storage. Homeless shelters or support organizations, women’s shelters, refugee or immigrant advocacy organizations are all possible collaborators. These organizations may also provide useful information on what kinds of health issues are prevalent and guide what products you provide in your project. Some community collaborations to consider are:
Those who can provide dried herbs, supplements such as vitamin C, vinegar, honey, sugar, bottles, jars, beeswax or vegan alternative. Much of this depends on your particular project.
Those who can lead medicine-making sessions. It is not necessary for people to have years of training and qualifications to be skilled in herbal medicine-making and able to lead such sessions. Canoe Journey Herbalists has started an ‘Adopt a Remedy’ scheme where a community organization can take on the production of a particular herbal remedy with detailed instructions and supplies provided by CJH. Another way schools, community groups, or individuals can support the project by volunteering to grow a particular plant needed by the project throughout the year. The donations of plants and products according to their specification enables the indigenous people driving the project to focus their efforts on the intertribal canoe journey, while ensuring a degree of quality control.
Various health and social work professionals:
When working with vulnerable populations, it can help to have people skilled in mental health and social services involved or available to consult.
Translation and graphics support:
Depending on who you’re trying to reach, it may be important to have signage and labels in languages besides English; in some cases, using universally recognized images may also be useful. For herbal care in informal refugee camps in France, where Herbalists Without Borders London provides support, labels are prepared in Farsi, Arabic, Pashtu, French, and Kurdish because of the diversity of people served.
Identify local grants, ethical business sponsors, and other creative fundraising possibilities. Ask around in your networks, too. There may be people who work or volunteer at places and can advocate for the project to access resources.
5. Decide on the location for your mobile apothecary
Even though your setup might be mobile, it’s good to decide on a regular, fixed location for a period of time. This allows you hone your procedures and processes, and get to know and establish relationships with the people in that area. It takes time for people to find out about new projects and to feel comfortable enough to try something new. The location will also inform the needs of your project. For example, if you locate outside without any heat or electricity supply, you’ll want to consider if serving hot tea is feasible as this will require transporting large flasks.
Mauney-Brodek of Herbalista recommends initially setting up a self-care station with safe herbal preparations and teas (ones that do not interact with medicines people may be taking and are safe for folks who may be pregnant). In Dublin, the system of community herbal projects that she helped start began with a self-care station at an occupation of Apollo House, an empty office building taken over by housing activists in the midst of a homelessness crisis. Later, the Dublin Herb Bike was developed, which moves between a few locations. Self-care stations located inside an appropriate venue do not need to be staffed and can easily be built upon as capacity increases. Herbalista has shared guidance on setting up a self-care station here.
The Mobile Apothecary in London has set up alongside of Refugee Community Kitchen (RCK), which serves free, hot meals outside of an underground station every Sunday. RCK already had a presence there which helped people engage with the Mobile Apothecary. While the Mobile Apothecary operates out of a cargo bike, and may in the future set up at more than one location, it has been running monthly sessions next to RCK. As a staffed project providing a small range of safe products, the Mobile Apothecary is a step above a self-care station, as people can speak to an herbalist or team members. Often, it’s the human connection that transmits the most potent medicine, so this is a really valuable service to provide, even if the capacity to run a full clinic is not there.
6. Organize a team
There are many hands involved in even the most basic of projects. Find people who are interested and have the capacity to help in ongoing roles. Have enough people in your team to rotate staffing or cover absences, and if you plan to run longer sessions, to allow individuals to take breaks. Some of the responsibilities may include: organizing publicity; creating labels; organizing medicine-making sessions; organizing donations of materials/fundraising; keeping track of stock; keeping track of budget; organizing harvests; setting up and taking down the station; staffing the station; washing up cups (if reusing); and documenting feedback.
7. Develop a plan
Based on the above, come up with a plan that is feasible to implement with your initial resources and capacity. For many projects starting up, it may be more sustainable to run sessions monthly with a small range of products. Consider how you will have enough products to set up a station consistently over a period of time and if outdoors, how you will operate in different weather situations. The project in Dublin only started distributing herbal remedies after several community medicine-making sessions had generated a good amount of stock.
You’ll also need to consider how to generate funding as even with donated supplies and ingredients, there will inevitably be some expenses. Many projects running medicine-making sessions follow the pay-it-forward scheme developed by Herbalista, in which people pay on a sliding scale basis for learning about medicine-making at the session. The money helps to support the project, in addition to other material and in-kind donations.
Some projects hold periodic fundraising events or sell a resource. For example, Bristol Herbalists Without Borders sells a calendar featuring botanical art and recipes. Local grants can also help. Although these projects are heavily dependent on volunteers, some projects compensate for a portion of the labor involved. In Atlanta, people leading educational activities are paid for contact time; however, it has taken years to get to the point of paying educators. The Mobile Apothecary project in London started with the help of a grant to acquire a cargo bike and another small grant to help cover other costs.
Ensure that the related issues of hygiene and safety issues are addressed in the setup, both for the people staffing the station (if applicable) and for those the project serves. Safety is another reason it is useful to set up with another organization. For example, the Mobile Apothecary project in London currently runs in a very busy area that has a pub and street homeless, and sometimes tensions flare up. Having people from the Refugee Community Kitchen alongside makes it easier to mutually support each other at these pop-up stations.
Be sure that any prepared medicines are labelled clearly, including the date of production, and are stored appropriately. If setting up an unstaffed self-care station, signage and information sheets are especially important.
Consider what’s appropriate for the climate and season. Hot teas are simple and really nurturing, but are not so appropriate in a sweltering situation. It’s good to plan ahead for the year and create or obtain stock accordingly.
8. Implement and evaluate
Start small — but do start! Lessons will be learned and your project will continually improve. Collect feedback and document which products are more popular at which times, what kinds of issues people seek support for, and what additional support the project may need to combat challenges.
Periodic review and reassessment will help improve your service. As more people become interested, the capacity to scale up with stock, frequency of sessions, multiple locations, or integrating reuse/refill will also grow.
Community herbal projects provide immensely rewarding and nourishing ways to do solidarity work by bringing people together and cultivating deeper connections for them with plants and nature around them. Medicine created by many hands provides healing not only to the recipients, but to all the people involved in the project.
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